We’ll start with four essential posts on the Wikileaks matter.
Perhaps the two biggest secrets that the WikiLeaks leaks leaked are that the private face of American foreign policy looks pretty much like its public face and that the officials who carry it out do a pretty good job.
The key, though, is that democracies have a process for creating such restrictions, and as a citizen it sickens me to see the US trying to take shortcuts. The leaders of Myanmar and Belarus, or Thailand and Russia, can now rightly say to us “You went after Wikileaks’ domain name, their hosting provider, and even denied your citizens the ability to register protest through donations, all without a warrant and all targeting overseas entities, simply because you decided you don’t like the site. If that’s the way governments get to behave, we can live with that.”
Over the long haul, we will need new checks and balances for newly increased transparency — Wikileaks shouldn’t be able to operate as a law unto itself anymore than the US should be able to. In the short haul, though, Wikileaks is our Amsterdam. Whatever restrictions we eventually end up enacting, we need to keep Wikileaks alive today, while we work through the process democracies always go through to react to change. If it’s OK for a democracy to just decide to run someone off the internet for doing something they wouldn’t prosecute a newspaper for doing, the idea of an internet that further democratizes the public sphere will have taken a mortal blow.
Third is Hackers Give Web Companies a Test of Free Speech, in the New York Times. It’s about secretive hackers attacking MasterCard, Visa and Paypal, and doing so in what we might call a “social” way. Sez the Times, “To organize their efforts, the hackers have turned to sites like Facebook and Twitter. That has drawn these Web giants into the fray and created a precarious situation for them.” The pull-grafs:
Some internet experts say the situation highlights the complexities of free speech issues on the Internet, as grassroots Web companies evolve and take central control over what their users can make public. Clay Shirky, who studies the Internet and teaches at New York University, said that although the Web is the new public sphere, it is actually “a corporate sphere that tolerates public speech.”
Marcia Hofmann, a lawyer at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said, “Any Internet user who cares about free speech or has a controversial or unpopular message should be concerned about the fact that intermediaries might not let them express it.”
She added, “Your free speech rights are only as strong as the weakest intermediary.”
I watch my friends root for the attackers and think this is the way wars always begin. The “fighting the good fight” spirit. Let’s go over there and show them who we are. Let’s make a symbolic statement. By the time the war is underway, we won’t remember any of that. We will wonder how we could have been so naive to think that war was something wonderful or glorious. People don’t necessarily think of wars being fought on the net and over the net, but new technology comes to war all the time, and one side often doesn’t understand…
…the Internet no longer has to fight for a right to exist. The people want it. But what kind of Internet we get, and what kind of government we get, those two things are now very deeply intertwined, and absolutely not decided. And how our financial system functions, that’s going to be what the war is fought over, if we can’t avoid having a war — which we should, if we can.
Let’s go back to Clay’s characterization of the Web as a corporate sphere that tolerates public speech. This is true, and in a way that goes far deeper than the current popularity of Twitter, Facebook and other “social” sites and services. It goes to the Domain Name System, or DNS.
You don’t own domain names. You rent them. You do this through a domain name registrar. Most of these are commercial entities. These sit in a domain name space that is hierarchical in nature and structure. This is why it is possible for governments and well-placed companies to cut off Wikileaks from every Web location other than wikileaks.ch, in Switzerland, which is characteristically neutral on the matter. It’s also why, even with COICA (the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act) still in its larval stage, Homeland Security can kill off websites for alleged copyright infringement without showing probable cause, issuing a warrant, or anything else so traditionally procedural. (Here’s one example.)
So, why don’t you have your own policy? Why can’t you be as trustworthy on the Web as you are walking into any store off the street? The reason is that you have no status on the Web itself beyond the minima implied by the term “user.” Whatever status you experience is what’s granted by site owners. You are the client. Your position is submissive. The dominant party is in charge, and there are a billion-plus of those.
I don’t propose fixing either DNS or the client-server model. I do propose, however, that we work on new models that don’t put us in submissive roles. For one example, see “How is your idea new?” under our Knight News Challenge entry. (And, if you like it, give it a good rating.) There are others as well. David Siegel wrote a whole book on one. Kynetx has another. (They’re complementary.) I could go on (and I invite others to do exactly that).
The Wikileaks mess was made on the Web, and less so the Net. These things are different. More to the point, we are netizens and not just webizens. The war for the Net is a separate one, and it is being faught in many places. From some of those places, little if any news escapes. (For example, did you know that your city in Texas you can’t do what Chatanooga’s doing in Tennessee?) Others places, such as Washington, are beyond fubar.
I’ll have more to say about that war in another post soon. Meanwhile, it might help to read an oldie but (very) goodie: Retired Texas Judge Steve Russell’s reaction to the late Communications Decency Act.